‘Knew this building would be a total loss’: Evacuees allowed back home after large fire destroys warehouse

FORT ATKINSON, Wis. – The Fort Atkinson Police Department is giving the go-ahead to go home to those evacuated by a large fire on Oak Street Tuesday.

That’s after the Fort Atkinson Fire Department and several other agencies responded to a large fire that destroyed a 45,000 square-foot warehouse filled with supplies such as military tires.

“When I turned onto Main Street from the fire station, I knew this building would be a total loss,” Fort Atkinson Fire Chief Daryl Rausch said.

Rausch’s thoughts then turned to what could be saved.

“Our goal was to stop the fire at that point and keep it out of the south building,” he said.

Firefighters were able to keep the fire from spreading to a connected building housing a server farm, office space and about a million dollars worth of classic cars.

“All these guys, you look at it, what is it, like 90 degrees out here? And there’s not a one of them wanting to go home,” said Dennis Verhalen, who watched the fire a few blocks from his home. “They’ll stay out here until the last lick of smoke is here.”

According to Rausch, about 150 firefighters joined the fight, including virtually all units in Jefferson County, with help from neighboring counties in Wisconsin and Illinois.

One was Verhalen’s son, a firefighter with Fort Atkinson and Janesville departments for decades.

“As a father, I’m always concerned, but not worried,” Verhalen said. “He’s well-trained. He knows what he’s doing.”

Fire officials planned to allow the fire to burn out overnight, with crews monitoring the situation. Rausch said additional runoff would be more hazardous for the environment than smoke, and they had already depleted much of the water supply, using about a million gallons of water.

“We have at this point pretty much drained the city water system,” he said at an afternoon press conference. “Water towers are down to 15 feet, which is very near the minimum amount we need to operate the city.”

The Department of Natural Resources is monitoring runoff and the Environmental Protection Agency is doing onsite air monitoring, according to police.

Two firefighters got heat-related injuries and are expected to be OK, while about 50 people in nearby homes were evacuated. The Red Cross opened a reception site to help until residents got the green light to head home Tuesday night.

In a Facebook post, the Fort Atkinson Police Department thanked the community for their help providing food and drinks to officers and firefighters.

“You see the piles of water,” Verhalen said. “They’ll bring some food, so the community really rallies around a fire like this.”

Rausch said more information would be released tomorrow, but the cause of the fire may remain unknown.

“I can tell you from experience, this will most likely go down as undetermined fire because the building is a complete loss and collapse,” he said. “It is unlikely that we will ever prove definitively what the cause was.”